Access is power

Organisations are increasingly attaching importance to giving their staff access to office-based systems while they work away...

Organisations are increasingly attaching importance to giving their staff access to office-based systems while they work away from the office. But do mobile databases today meet our needs and what can we expect them to offer tomorrow?

Key database vendors Oracle, IBM, Sybase with its iAnyWhere mobile subsidiary and Microsoft, all offer customers a cut down version of their databases which users can access today via notebook PCs and PDAs. In the not so distant future mobile phones will provide a third access point.

The main users of these mobile databases are field sales staff, engineers, doctors and nurses. A sales person may use his or her PDA to check customer records and pricing details, while a nurse making house calls can access patient records and information about medication.

The reality of real-time systems
While the providers of these databases say they can all be used in real-time, in practice these systems are updated only when the user decides to do so. The updates take place either when the PDA or notebook PC is synchronised via the corporate network or across the Internet. But emerging mobile networking technology could have a dramatic impact on the way such databases are deployed.

The Microsoft vision is to provide access to any given piece of data wherever the user is located. "You should be able to have the same kind of access to database information from mobile devices as you would if you are in the office using your laptop or PC," says Anne Marie Duffy, Microsoft's wireless and mobility manager.

Will 3G transform m-databases?
Thomas Gregers Honoré, IBM's database solutions marketing manger, EMEA, predicts the mobile database will become increasingly important as new wireless and networking technologies, such as 3G, emerge. "The need to carry more and more data with you will increase," he says.

Data may also be tailored to the user's needs. Chris Ward, a product marketing manager for Oracle 9i in the UK, believes 3G will bring a simplified approach to mobile data access. "With 3G and the way networks are changing, we will see very much more real-time personalisation features," he says.

In theory, 3G would provide an always-on Internet connection. This means mobile users could have access to real-time corporate information without the need for a special, mobile version of the database. Such unlimited access may not necessarily be a priority according to Alison Henderson, UK operations director at Sybase's iAnyWhere subsidiary. While 3G is not here yet, there are other factors holding back "always-on" database connectivity from mobile devices. One is the fact that handheld computers are simply not geared up to perform the types of database access desktop PC users would need. Another is cost.

Opportunity cost
"Everyone wants to keep communications charges as low as possible," Henderson says. "With 3G, you'll still be paying for the packet size [of the data you are sending]." She says a possible use for 3G would see most of the data residing on the device. Users would then use the 3G network only for swapping or sending small packets of information such as updates to the corporate database and to download further data.

Users also need to take into account the actual cost of connecting a mobile device to a corporate database. Carl Zetie, an analyst at Giga Information Group, warns users to pay close attention to their supplier's licensing requirements for per-seat licensing as costs can easily escalate.

The future of mobile databases
At present mobile databases are mainly used to provide offline access to corporate data. Such databases can be used in situations where it is useful to keep a subset of data that can be made available to staff when they are not connected to the corporate network. While 3G offers users the opportunity to make all data access available online, removing the need to download a subset of the data, such a strategy may not prove cost-effective. As a consequence businesses are likely to continue supporting the offline access model for the time being, using notebook PCs and PDAs running separate mobile databases to sychronise with corporate databases.

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